Sometimes the sayings of Jesus can seem to be a bit hard to understand, especially if it seems – superficially at least – that they may contradict other biblical truths. Consider the issue of marriage and family. There is no question that God has ordained both as his divinely appointed institutions, and they are the norm for how men and women and children are to relate.
I and others have made that case repeatedly, so I will not repeat myself on this here. However, some things said by Jesus might seem to contradict or undermine all this. Sometimes he seemed to say some pretty harsh things about family relationships.
So what are we to make of all this, and how might we reconcile these things, if reconciliation is indeed necessary here? Is the Bible simply full of hopeless contradictions, or is there a way to think about these two differing emphases?
The short answer is this: marriage and family are indeed important – they are God’s building block for society and Satan of course wants to destroy both. But Jesus also stressed the need to put him first, and at times this would even mean divisions within a family. Think of Luke 12:49-53 for example:
I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
This becomes even more pronounced in a passage like Matthew 10:32-39:
Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven. Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn
‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
So do these two different sets of biblical truth conflict? Must we go with God or go with family? Generally speaking it is not an either-or but a both-and situation. That is, family is God’s norm, and making Christ preeminent in our lives is also his expected aim for believers. So we can affirm both. But at times the two may come into conflict.
So yes, family is God’s institution, and those who seek to attack it and break it up are doing the enemy’s work. What Jesus is saying in these passages is our ultimate loyalties and priorities are what really matter. We can put very good things (like family ties) ahead of Christ at times.
Therefore we have no real discrepancy here: marriage and family are vitally important and very much God’s idea, but we also must count the cost of discipleship, and sometimes that may mean having to put Christ first over a particular relationship, whether a family relationship or some other form of relationship.
Radical discipleship means putting God first above everything else – even above good things which God has blessed. That may mean having to choose at times between loyalty to Christ and allegiance to family. That is what Jesus is on about here: the radical call of Christian discipleship.
Let me finish with a few wise words of commentary here, just on the Matthew passage. Craig Blomberg cuts to the chase: “Theological syntheses must balance Eph. 6:14 and 1 Tim. 5:8 with teachings like these. Devotion to family is a cardinal Christian duty but must never become absolute to the extent that devotion to God is compromised.”
R. T. France puts it this way:
Like many prophetic oracles, this saying is cast in an absolute form which needs to be set alongside other contrasting aspects of Jesus’ teaching. Family enmity is not a virtue in itself, nor is it the universal experience of Jesus’ disciples, but it is a matter of priorities. Loyalty to Jesus and his mission comes first, and the result of that may be that family ties are strained to breaking point. But there is a new family relationship for disciples of Jesus which more than compensates for what may be lost by loyalty to him (12:46-50; 19:27-29).
Robert Mounce comments, “The issue is one of priorities: our commitment to Christ must be greater than to anyone else. Jesus is not counseling his followers to ride roughshod over family affection or responsibility. The point is that when a person pledges solidarity with Christ and his mission, nothing – not even the love of a family member (understood as unsympathetic to the Christian faith) – must be allowed to stand in the way.”
Again, the point is not to trash family relationships but to fully exalt Christ in everything. As Daniel Doriani comments:
Jesus assumes parents and children love each other. He approves of love in the family. But he says love of family must never push him into the background. A disciple must love him supremely, more than father or mother, son or daughter, husband or wife. If we must choose between pleasing Jesus and pleasing our family, Jesus says we must love him more than father or mother (10:37).
This is not about the Christian repudiating or attacking his own family. The point Jesus is making is that when we come to Christ, family members may well turn on us and reject us. As D. A. Carson puts it, “He does not mean that those he wins as his disciples will turn against their family members, but that by winning men and women to himself their family members will turn against them.”
R. C. Sproul concurs: “Jesus Himself experienced the division; His brothers did not believe in Him for quite some time (John 7:3-5). Many of you reading this book could attest to similar strains and conflicts in your families over your profession of faith in Christ. I, too, have experienced it firsthand.”
So these hard words of Jesus about radical discipleship are NOT meant to be used as an excuse for believers to ride roughshod over their own families. Family life is held in high regard in Scripture, and Christians should do all they can to maintain healthy family relationships.
But sadly, sometimes the unbelieving family members will reject the believing member, and divisions will occur. Jesus promises us here that this may well be the case. In that situation, allegiance to Christ comes first. Sure, we seek to win over the unbelieving family members and love them, but loyalty to Christ must be supreme.
Having been in a few cults early on in my Christian journey I know how normal it is for the new convert to be urged to hate their family and turn against them. It is quite common in the cults for the leader to pit the believer against the rest of their family, and insist that the cult is his new family.
This is certainly not what Jesus had in mind when he said these words. Family life is something God-ordained and we need to show proper respect and love for family members. The main message of Jesus here is that at times we will have to risk alienating our own family as we fully follow Christ.
It is unfortunate when that does occur, and we are not to go out of our way and seek for that to happen. But when it does, we bear it for the sake of making Christ Lord of our life. Jesus made the toughest demands for his would be disciples.
Are we worthy of following him fully, and all the way to the end? We all must count the cost of discipleship. As John MacArthur stated:
So you want to come after Jesus? It will just cost you absolutely everything. The Lord might not take your life. He might not take all your money. He might not take your family or your spouse. He might not take your job, but you need to be willing to give them up if that’s what He wants. You need to be desperate enough to embrace Christ no matter what the price.